"Plate 51: Proportion of Freeman and Slaves Among American Negroes" by W.E.B. DuBois and researchers at Atlanta University.

People in Oak Park, River Forest and many other Chicago suburbs get their water treated at the Jardine Water Purification Plant in Chicago.

According to a recent Chicago Tribune report, authorities at the plant produced a water sample in 2009 showing a much-too-high concentration of what scientists call “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment.

The toxins are in everything — from carpets and cosmetics to fast-food wrappers and firefighting foam, the Tribune reports. They leach out of those products and end up in lakes, rivers, wells and soil.

A study released this month by researchers from Stockholm University found that the “forever chemicals” are everywhere on Earth.

Ian Cousins, lead author of the Stockholm study, was blunt when he talked about his findings with the BBC.

“We’re in a place now where you can’t live anywhere on the planet, and be sure that the environment is safe,” Cousins said.

Last month, the Tribune reported on the tragedy of Adam Cordell and Johanna Davis. The couple started an organic farm in Maine about a decade ago. They grew “10 or 15 different vegetable crops, ranging from lettuce, kale and spinach to fruiting crops like tomatoes and peppers.”

They also grew heritage varieties of wheat, oats, rye, corn and beans. Last year, they stopped their efforts after learning that the farm’s soil, spinach and water had tested for “forever chemicals” at levels 400 times higher than the state standards.

The farm, it turned out, had been fertilized with sewage sludge during the early 1990s, the Tribune reports. The sludge, a human and industrial waste byproduct, is on fields across America — from sea to shining sea — because “local officials, farm bureaus, university extension agents [and] even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency” have encouraged farmers to layer it on the soil. 

Cordell and Davis are afraid because the chemicals that refuse to break down are now in their blood at levels “250 times higher than the average American” and even higher than workers in some industrial settings, the Tribune reported. The couple has a 3-year-old son.

How does it feel to be a parasite?

“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it,” wrote W.E.B. DuBois in 1897.

“All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town […].”

The problem of the 20th century was the problem of the color line, Du Bois famously wrote. To perceive the color line one-dimensionally as merely separating whites and Blacks would be to miss how the awful reality of the line as a complex social contract — one that implicated more than it delineated — bore down on whites and Blacks.

Blacks, especially, have to navigate all aspects of the separation, such that we become synonymous with the line, with the problem. We become the illness and the antidote, the quandary and the solution (i.e., ‘If only he had complied’). We also become convenient scapegoats meant to distract the world from confronting the source of the problem.

The problem of the color line remains. We live with the social accretions of racism, conquest, settler colonialism, imperialism, resource extraction and exploitation. We also now live with their logical endpoints. There are no new great frontiers to settle. There are no more mighty rivers or lakes to reverse. There is no new land to take. There will soon be no more soil to deplete.

“Ecology deals with the balance between organisms and their environment — between human beings and nature,” wrote Michael H. Best and William E. Connolly in their 1976 The Politicized Economy.

“The issues posed by such a relationship touch the very survival of humanity on the planet Earth,” they add. “We depend on nature for air to breathe, soil to grow food, water to drink and to sustain vegetation, fossil fuels to provide heat and to power production systems, deltas to provide material for commodities. But if nature is our host, we are its parasites. We abuse it unmercifully, robbing it of nonrenewable materials, straining its self-restorative capacities.”

How does it feel to be a parasite? Black, Brown, Indigenous and poor people have grappled with this question for centuries.

According to Quartz, a 2016 study published in Environmental Research Letters found “a consistent pattern over a 30-year period of placing hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods where poor people and people of color live.”

The Chicago Sun-Times reported in March on an organization called Coalition to End Sacrifice Zones, which announced: “that they cannot wait for a previously promised ordinance from the [Mayor Lori] Lightfoot administration that would address the cumulative pollution burden Black and Brown communities on the city’s South and West sides face.”

Abroad, Haiti harvests rainwater for households and industries, putting its residents at the highest risk of imbibing those toxic “forever chemicals.” The island nation is also highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

And yet that small country, one of the poorest places on the planet, has few choices but to mimic the parasitic, fossil fuel-centric development practices of wealthy nations to feed its people and fortify itself against an increasingly hostile Mother Nature.

That isn’t for lack of trying. Haiti, after all, famously fought back and won its independence from France in 1804. Afterward, the free Black country became a big problem for Europe and America. The French considered Haitian independence so problematic that they forced the small government to pay them reparations for about 70 years. Over that period, the reparation payments totaled nearly $560 million in 2022 dollars, according to some estimates.

Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, another Black island country, also has a problem. How does Barbados do enough fossil-fuel industry and growth-oriented capitalism to feed its people and mitigate the perils of climate change? How does it pay for critical infrastructure while also forging an alternative, ecologically sustainable path forward?

The New York Times Magazine recently reported on Mottley’s attempt to persuade the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.), one of the most powerful financial institutions in the world, to help her manage the vulnerable island nation’s billions of dollars of crippling debt.

Mottley “would have to untangle the relationships connecting the I.M.F. with the financial institutions that invest in countries like Barbados — a global financial system that simultaneously helps and preys upon countries at their moments of greatest need,” according to the New York Times Magazine article published in July.

“She would have to challenge the rules of that system and its powerful figures, who often struggle to recognize how climate change is altering the traditional dynamics of debt and development. Mottley would come to see the traps of that system as fundamentally unjust, born from generations of colonial rule.

“Just as outsiders once pillaged the Caribbean for wealth created by the hands of slaves, investors in those former imperial powers now squeezed former territories for their assets, for access to markets, for interest on loans. And she would have to contend with all of that waiting for the next storm, knowing she governed a dot of land isolated in one of the most vulnerable places on Earth.”

How does it feel to be a parasite? Black and Brown and Indigenous and poor people have been tormented by this question for centuries. But as the Jardine water sample demonstrates, this is everybody’s question now.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com